Holiday Food Pairings~Avoiding
I was lucky growing up; my family drank wine "just because it was Sunday" or "just
because the sunset was beautiful." Truth is we didn’t need a reason;
good food and friends was all the permission we needed. However, most families
I knew only drank wine twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas.
According to The Wine Institute, 100 million adult Americans do not drink
wine. Many of these folks, no doubt, also serve wine only at holiday dinners.
What if they buy the most heavily advertised supermarket wines; Chardonnay,
Merlot and Cabernet for holiday dinners? I'm sorry; most of these wines will
only reinforce their dislike toward the beverage. The majority of wine ads
around the holiday time are so misleading that they are destructive to potential
new wine lovers.
"I guess I just don't like wine," they'll say, and not touch the
stuff until next year, when they'll repeat the cycle. Those who regularly
drink wine for pleasure may venture a guess about which wine "goes" with
which food. The reality is that, with wine you never know anything for sure
until the cork is extracted and you are answering a mouthful of food with
a sip of wine. No less an authority than Alice Waters says as much in Chez
Panisse Cooking where she writes;
"In practice, it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of food
and wine together unless both are well known ahead of time. Moreover, one
of the delights in bringing food and wine together is the element of surprise;
great marriages of wine and food are more often than not accidental."
Experience has shown that Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can be
astringent with traditional holiday foods. The liberal use of oak and the
lack of natural acidity in these ripe wines make for appealing cocktails,
but react violently when paired with the fixings associated with a typical
holiday meal. (turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit
To prove that point, we recently "volunteered" a wine drinking
friend who knows what he likes. He admitted that he hadn't given much thought
to the belief that the taste of wine could change with food. We had our friend
taste the wines we brought twice, once without the food and then together
with the food. (a popular California Chardonnay, a well known Merlot from
Washington State, a German estate Riesling and Pinot Noir from the Russian
River) The results were dramatic. The food for pairing included slices of
turkey, cranberry sauce, an ambrosia salad, candied yams, mashed potatoes
Initially he was complimentary of the Chardonnay and the Merlot, but described
the Pinot Noir as "light." We didn't even sample him on the sweet
German wine the first time because he had previously declared that he didn't
like sweet wines. Then our volunteer sampled the mashed potatoes and the gravy
with the popular Chardonnay. The look on his face said it all. The bitterness
created by chemical reaction of the food and the oak made the taste unbearable.
A similar acidic result occurred when the turkey and cranberry sauce clashed
with the oaky Merlot. We then moved to the Pinot Noir, which the volunteer
had previously dismissed as "light." The wine soared with the turkey
and cranberry, became expansive with the mashed potatoes and possessed the
character to complement rather than obliterate the sweet things on the plate.
Finally we offered the sweet German Riesling; the volunteer was amazed at
how well the flavor, the acidity and even the sweetness complemented the totality
of the plate. A wine he had previously dismissed from his repertoire had suddenly
become his favorite wine at the table this day.
"It kind of blends right in with the food doesn't it?" he said.
"That is what is known as 'harmony,'" I answered.
In the real world, food can literally destroy one's favorite sipping wines,
while wines not appreciated at the cocktail hour can soar. Simply paying attention
to those flavor combinations in the mouth will reveal the importance of proper
wine and food pairing, perhaps for the first time.
Thirty Four North Wine Merchant
34 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448